Tina Fey the writer-producer gets saddled with a so-so leading lady in Tina Fey, the actress — just one of the hurdles that make “30 Rock” something less than a joyous romp. NBC’s decision to launch both this show and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” so close together still feels misguided, and few comparisons — except perhaps Alec Baldwin’s sinister network suit — reflect favorably upon this half-hour version. Baldwin and co-star Tracy Morgan do yield a chuckle or two, but a “Saturday Night Live” pedigree won’t be enough to anchor this “Rock” unless it gets consistently funnier, and fast.
Liz Lemon (Fey) is the head writer of something called “The Girlie Show,” a mediocre-looking sketch comedy with a semi-neurotic star (Jane Krakowski, subbed in for “SNL’s” Rachel Dratch, now relegated to a cameo). Life is soon complicated, however, when the network puts Jack Donaghy (Baldwin) — a GE suit with a mastery of microwave ovens — in charge of production.
Oily, intense and humorless, Jack responds to Liz’s protestations with the premiere’s most genuine laugh, telling her, “You have the boldness of a much younger woman.” It’s hard not to wish there was more writing on that level to go around, and if “30 Rock’s” going to survive, Baldwin’s comedic chops will be tugging the lifeline.
The other thread, alas, is more uneven, with Morgan as Tracy, a Martin Lawrence-type star (his catchphrase: “Funky Grandma be trippin'”) that Jack directs Liz to enlist to invigorate the show and create a “third heat” — a strategy seemingly tailored more to microwaves than comedy. After encountering Tracy’s entourage and a detour to a local strip club, all the elements are in place for the “Girlie Show” to get wild and crazy.
Despite her success with “Mean Girls,” Fey mostly hits too-familiar notes in the pilot. Moreover, she’s a limited protagonist, which is problematic, since Liz is ostensibly the one sane voice amid the mayhem, what with the crazy actors, bean-counting executives and nerdy comedy writers. Even if truth is a defense, the stereotypes all feel a bit been there, seen that.
Nor is it a small matter that it’s difficult to visualize what principles Liz is fighting to defend, inasmuch as “The Girlie Show” looks pretty awful. (Again, “Studio 60” excels here by creating a show within a show that someone might actually be inclined to watch.)
Of course, “Studio 60’s” modest ratings amid critical praise suggest this milieu hardly guarantees ratings gold, and perhaps a sitcom take will fare better. Still, watching “30 Rock” it’s easy to wonder if all the effort being expended on fictional incarnations of “SNL” might be better spent infusing the original with the boldness of a much newer show.